Daily Dose of Europe: Ravenna’s Mosaics

One of Europe’s lesser-known art treasures hides out in the small Italian town of Ravenna: glittering mosaics boasting the beauty of Byzantine civilization.

As America continues to suffer crisis upon crisis, it has never been more important to broaden our perspectives and learn about the people and places that shape our world. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Learning the stories behind great art can shed new light on our lives today. Here’s one of my favorites.

It’s AD 540. The city of Rome has been looted, Italy is crawling with barbarians, and Rome’s thousand-year empire is crumbling fast. Into this chaotic world comes the emperor of the East — Justinian. In these tranquil mosaics (which he commissioned), he reassured everyone that he was restoring order and stability — that his rule would be a beacon of civilization.

Emperor Justinian — wearing the imperial purple robe and jeweled crown — leads a dignified procession of men into the church. The other mosaic (on the opposite wall) is a mirror image: Empress Theodora leads her entourage of well-dressed women and courtiers.

Justinian is flanked by soldiers (left) and priests (right), demonstrating how he was reuniting the empire both politically and religiously. He carries a golden bowl of Communion wafers, while Theodora has the chalice of wine, as they file in to consecrate their new church. Justinian and his supportive wife had brought peace to Italy and briefly revived the glory of ancient Rome.

But aside from the symbolism, these mosaics give a behind-the-scenes glimpse at these remarkable people. Justinian has his legendary curly hair and round handsome face. At age 43, he married his twenty-something girlfriend, the commoner Theodora — renowned for her beauty and notorious for her checkered past as an actress and prostitute. Despite opposition, Justinian made Theodora his queen and most capable adviser. Theodora gets equal billing with her own mosaic.

In the mosaic, Theodora is joined by her best friend Antonina (right), a fellow actress. Justinian stands alongside his trusty general Belisarius (left), who secured Italy for Justinian. Narses (right) was the palace eunuch who became a ballsy general. The bald guy (labeled “Maximianus”) was the bishop Justinian appointed to enforce the three-gods-in-one Trinity doctrine that most Christians follow to this day.

These high-quality mosaics — made from thousands of tiny chips of gold, glass, and stone the size of your fingernail — capture the majesty of this long-lost world. Justinian wears a stunning robe pinned at the shoulder with a jeweled brooch, and accessorizes with an elaborate diagonal-shaped chest-piece that all the big shots wore. Theodora rocks a gown with a brocaded hem embroidered with the Three Magi. Her head and shoulders drip with rubies, emeralds, and pearls. Both Theodora and Justinian wear something else — halos — marking them as divine rulers, in the same god-on-earth tradition
of Roman emperors that stretched back to Caesar Augustus.

But now Rome was fading, and these flesh-and-blood human beings were crystallizing into icons. Everyone faces forward, with solemn faces and almond eyes making a line across the mosaic. Any sense of a 3-D setting is dissolving into the gold-mosaic background.

Despite Justinian’s efforts, the Roman Empire eventually broke in two and Italy descended into Dark Age chaos. Theodora died young of breast cancer. Justinian retreated to Constantinople (modern Istanbul). For the next thousand years, that eastern half of the Roman Empire — the Byzantine Empire — would be the center of European civilization. And through the dark centuries that followed the collapse of Rome in the West, people could stand in this church — the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna — before these glittering mosaics to get a glimpse of the grandeur of what had been…and the glory of what was to come: the Renaissance.

This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the new, full-color coffee-table book, “Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces,” by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Ravenna.